When Kurt Rayburg bought a house on Whaley Street in January, he did the same thing the previous owner and owners for years before had done with it – rent it to college students.
The house at 816 Whaley is one of the largest houses in the neighborhood, with five bedrooms, situated near the University of South Carolina campus and other student rental homes and apartments.
But Rayburg didn’t know there was a problem with his business plan and with some other rental arrangements between homeowners and multiple students in Columbia: It’s illegal.
City residential zoning laws prohibit more than three unrelated adults living in a single-family residence, a rule the state Supreme Court upheld in 2011 in a case brought by rental-home owner Lt. Gov.-elect Henry McMaster.
Even so, it’s not unusual for landlords to skirt the occupancy rule by getting special exception from the city to be considered a roominghouse, or to ignore the rule altogether, city zoning administrator Brian Cook said.
“The majority just keep operating off the radar,” Cook said of rental-home owners in a city that’s home to 30,000 to 40,000 college students.
Roominghouses have to be approved as a special exception by the city and are only allowed in certain residential and commercial zoning districts. They require one off-street parking space for each bedroom.
Cook said city officials doesn’t have a system to track how many roominghouses there are in Columbia.
Generally, single-family houses exceeding the occupancy limit go unnoticed by the city unless a neighbor reports them, Cook said, so the rule can be difficult to enforce.
Rayburg’s case was brought to the city’s attention by someone in the community, Cook said.
Rayburg, who lives in Simpsonville and has a daughter who attends USC, rents his house to five male students. He said he was unaware of the rule about the number of unrelated people living in a house when he bought the home.
In response to a notice from the city, he asked the Board of Zoning Appeals last month to grant him an exception to establish the house as a roominghouse, which is permitted in the residential zoning district and would allow more than three unrelated people to live in the house.
He said he hopes the regulators would consider the practicality of his request.
“Is it realistic, and does form follow function? Is it reasonable? And this is definitely reasonable,” Rayburg said.
The zoning board was sympathetic to Rayburg’s situation, saying he seemed to be a responsible landlord who is trying to do the right thing. But some board members hesitated to grant him the exception for worry, they said, of what could happen with the house under future ownership or of setting a precedent for other cases.
Rayburg’s case was deferred to Tuesday’s meeting.
“I can see why there are rules, and that’s why I’m applying for a special exception,” Rayburg said. “To have only three (residents) and then have half the house vacant, that doesn’t make any sense.”
Before granting a special exception, Cook said, the zoning board has to consider whether factors such as vehicular and pedestrian safety, noise pollution, litter and public interest would be adversely affected by giving the house status as a roominghouse.
If the board does not grant the roominghouse exception, Rayburg could continue renting his house to more than three people by converting it to a duplex. That would be a burdensome cost, he said. And, he added, it effectively wouldn’t change the living situation at the house except that he would be able to add an additional tenant.
Rayburg said he’s determined to make the situation right by either solution, but he expressed frustration at what he said seems like selective enforcement of the occupancy rule.
“Laws are made to be on the books and to be enforced, and, obviously, I’m being enforced. But not everybody is,” Rayburg said.
Given the proximity to campus of single- and multifamily residential zoning areas such as the Whaley Street neighborhood and streets between Five Points and USC, students are a likely market to rent houses there.
And, Cook said, there can be a practical financial gain for landlords who rent to more occupants than the zoning laws allow – “(Y)ou could get paid $1,000 a month or $3,000 a month if you tell a little white lie,” he said.
On the other side of the story are residents in single-family neighborhoods who may feel unwelcoming toward a denser population of students and the issues such as noise and parking congestion that can come with student living.
“They want to maintain the value of their homes and properties,” Cook said. “A neighborhood that’s mostly single-family and upper-end homes, they don’t want college kids moving into the neighborhood.”
One neighbor spoke against Rayburg’s request before the zoning board, saying that in years past, students in the house had caused disruptions in the neighborhood, though not recently. He was also concerned about all the street parking in the area.
While the law protects those neighborhoods, people can still ignore it – and get away with it.
“If people have more than three people living in a house and they’re good neighbors, generally nobody’s going to complain about them,” Cook said.